Delivering a safety net to tackle rising migrant destitution

  • Election 24

Lucy Leon and Jacqueline Broadhead, Centre on Migration, Policy and Society (COMPAS) University of Oxford  

Here Lucy Leon and Jacqueline Broadhead of the Centre on Migration, Policy and Society (COMPAS) at University of Oxford offer solutions to the serious issue of migrant destitution and exclusion.

Migrant destitution in the UK has risen by 136% since 2019 – with over a quarter of destitute households headed up by migrants in 2022. Many of those affected are children and adults with care needs, including those with terminal illnesses and suffering from dementia. Local authorities have a legal responsibility to support these groups and prevent destitution, but our recent research demonstrates that this ‘parallel welfare safety net’ is increasingly dysfunctional. With no statutory guidance in England, some councils are uncertain of their legal duties and fail to provide adequate information, accommodation and support.

Despite incurring significant rising costs supporting vulnerable destitute migrants, local authorities do not receive any dedicated central government funding to deliver an efficient, standardised and fair parallel safety net and instead rely on overstretched social care budgets. Our research has found that some eligible destitute people are assessed as not meeting the social care threshold and refused support, that some people are unaware they can access social care and that some are too worried about the potential ramifications to apply for help.

Almost 2.6 million people living in the UK at the end of 2022 held visas with the ‘no recourse to public funds’ (NRPF) condition restricting their access to mainstream benefits, which represents an increase of over 1 million in just two years. Recent immigration policy changes have led to new groups being excluded, including a sharp rise in the number of European nationals impacted post-Brexit. This includes European nationals with pre-settled status, student visa holders, families on the 10-year route to settlement and people with an irregular status including European nationals who missed the EU Settlement Scheme deadline, visa overstayers and undocumented people. Whilst Home Office statements on NRPF focus on ‘temporary migrants’, many people impacted by NRPF have built their lives in the UK. This includes British-born children who have never lived elsewhere and vulnerable adults who have lived in the UK for decades who now find themselves unable to work due to significant health issues in later life. Whilst existing literature focuses on the impact on families, our findings show the impact on all life stages including pregnancy, early years, families with school aged children, students, middle-aged people unable to work due to health issues, elderly people at retirement age, as well as people facing terminal illness and needing end of life care.

Many people subject to the NRPF condition are entirely self-sufficient, but all lack access to the mainstream welfare safety net if things go wrong, meaning that a dysfunctional safety net at the local level has grave consequences for current and future levels of destitution. The Home Office maintains that the NRPF policy is essential to prevent burdens on the taxpayer and to improve integration. However, it is worth noting that removing the NRPF restriction and providing access to mainstream benefits would, at a stroke, remove the need for this parallel welfare safety net, reducing the cumulative pressure on social care and maintaining conditionality and means-testing as is the case for all recipients of Universal Credit. Further, understanding the full consequences of the NRPF policy would demonstrate how the condition intersects with other policy priorities – including ending homelessness and rough sleeping and tackling child poverty. The ‘Everyone In’ scheme during the pandemic demonstrated how providing housing for rough sleepers, regardless of immigration status, could aid public health.

However, even in the absence of reform or abolition of the NRPF condition, there are significant steps which can be taken to tackle rising migrant destitution.

1.      Improve governance structures for tackling destitution

For too long, NRPF has been seen as a niche policy issue, without central or local government leadership. As rates of destitution soar, failing to tackle this issue prevents local government from meeting priorities around ending homelessness and child poverty. Drawing on Scotland’s Ending Destitution Together strategy, central government should develop a cross-government UK-wide strategy to tackle migrant destitution, in partnership with local government, the voluntary and community sector and people with lived experience.

2.      Empower and fund local government to, at a minimum, meet its legal responsibilities and ultimately develop preventative approaches to tackling poverty and exclusion.

Local government has a legal duty to support vulnerable adults and families unable to access the mainstream welfare safety net. However, our research finds that, too often, support is patchy and dysfunctional, with many local authorities lacking a clear idea of need in their areas or the number of people supported. If the NRPF policy is to be maintained, local government should be supported and empowered to develop its support for destitute families and eligible adults, with central government providing dedicated funding to deliver this parallel welfare safety net. Statutory guidance in Scotland and Wales needs to be reviewed and better implemented and guidance should be drafted for England and Northern Ireland. Local government should develop localised subsistence policies with clear minimum acceptable rates, building in the flexibility to adapt to individuals’ needs, drawing on recent case law and guidance. Local authorities need to ensure they provide clear information and advice so that people know their rights and how to access them.

3.      Put dignity and humanity at the heart of the system

Finally, through this research we were able to work with an Experts by Experience advisory group with lived experience of NRPF, who acted as community researchers, leading and supporting focus groups for others who have been through the system. Beyond the need for substantive policy change, the group continually highlighted the need for a system which treats people fairly with openness and dignity. This echoed the findings of the Windrush Lessons Learned review and highlights the need for significant culture change in how migrants are treated within our social care and immigration systems which moves beyond simple guidance and policy, to the core of social work practice and principles.

About the authors

Jacqui is Co-Director of the Centre on Migration, Policy and Society (COMPAS) and Director of the Global Exchange on Migration and Diversity, at the University of Oxford, managing knowledge exchange and research projects which aim to promote the reciprocal sharing of expertise among academics, policy makers, and practitioners. She also acts as Impact Advocate for the Social Sciences Division at Oxford aiming to promote knowledge exchange and impact activity. Jacqui’s leads ‘Inclusive Cities’ – a network of 12 UK cities focussed on improving integration outcomes.

Lucy Leo is a Researcher at COMPAS.  She works on the No Recourse to Public Funds (NRPF) immigration condition and social services provision for those at risk of destitution. Lucy also works on the Measuring Irregular Migration (MIrreM) project, exploring strategic approaches to regularisation for undocumented migrants in Europe. Lucy has worked in the migration and children’s sector since 2003 in various roles, including as a researcher, frontline practitioner, service manager and policy adviser.

Image Credit: Joel Muniz, Unsplash